Number of British Soldiers experiencing mental ill health rising significantly: 100 years on, why can’t we get this right?

Cleared for public release by MAJ Clarence Counts, 7th Special Forces Group, Public Affairs OfficerWriting Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health I quickly realised that although it was, on the face of it, a book about the aftermath of the First World War, it had a very modern significance. I have now given a lot of talks about the book, and the impact of the trauma on the soldiers and their families during and after the Great War. Invariably, an audience member will ask me a post-talk question about how far I think things have changed for service personnel over the past century. One hundred years ago there was little understanding of the mental health needs of civilians, let alone those facing the horrors of conflict, but today? No excuses surely?

So I was really interested to read in the press today that the number of servicemen and women suffering from mental illness has risen by almost a third since 2011, when significant cuts to the defence budget took hold.

The Daily Telegraph published official Ministry of Defence figures showing the number of Armed Forces personnel with “mental health disorders” has risen from 3,927 in 2011 to 5,076 in 2013, a rise of 28%. It is anticipated that the figures for 2014 will show a further steep rise.

How far this rise is related to a greater willingness to discuss mental health issues is unclear. Certainly the Ministry of Defence attributes the rise to a drive to raise awareness, including the ‘Don’t Bottle it Up’ campaign, but are challenged by veteran’s charities who believe that a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the rise.

Col. Stuart Tootal

Col. Stuart Tootal

The Telegraph quotes Colonel Stuart Tootal, who led troops into Helmand Province in 2006:
“You cannot ignore the fact that the Army has just spent over 10 years on intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan…..You have soldiers who have been exposed to intense operations. There is pressure on their families and pressure on themselves, often during long tours.”

Researching Shell Shocked Britain I uncovered many stories of families destroyed by the mental scars men returned with. It was very difficult for many to slip back into civilian life and they might break down months or years after war ended, unable to relate to their families, find employment or forget the terrible things they had witnessed.

Col. Tootal continued: “We have come a long way. There is better recognition of mental health and more awareness, but more can be done. We have to remember that the mental scars of war are just like the physical scars.” He would like the government to commit to continuity of support as soldiers (and the problem is most acute in the Army) move into retirement.

After the First World War men who were physically wounded were given far better pension provision than those who were suffering long-term psychological problems, and although that is no longer the case, it is still often difficult for service personnel who break down after leaving the army to convince the MoD that it is related to their time serving their country.

The Telegraph piece comes in the week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, claims there remains an “unspoken bias” in Britain that prioritises physical illness ahead of concerns about mental health. As someone who has worked in the field and written about mental health issues on a regular basis I can say this is most certainly the case.

These figures were published following a Freedom of Information request made by The Daily Telegraph to the MoD. They are certainly not figures that are widely published, but then the Ministry of Defence is no different from many other organisations who may be reluctant to admit that their staff are under increasing stress and experiencing mental ill-health. More than £7 million pounds has been allocated to support service personnel with conditions such as PTSD and depression, which is laudable but only effective is utilised in the right way. Co. Tootal is right – only by making sure a man or woman leaving the Forces has continued support can we reduce the higher levels of family breakdown, domestic violence, crime and homelessness that are often a consequence of psychological trauma and which affect the war veteran now, as they did 100 years ago.

So we must hope that the budget cuts affecting our Armed Forces do not extend to the psychological support available. I end my talks with the hope that the centenary of the Great War, if it has one long-term outcome, raises awareness of the impact of war trauma down the generations, something which has affected many over the century and which will continue to blight lives if robust action is not taken.

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